I always thought I would be a better gangster than a spy. The spy thing is too much sneaking around in a trench coat trying to lurk in the shadows of the night. Always vulnerable, like a puppy on an iceberg, a spy often is a traitor and who wants to groove with a traitor? Gathering information, creeping around, perhaps your shoe is an intercontinental ballistic missile (better than “his bow-tie is really a camera”), not that fun – just not a good line of work. Not to say that being a gangster is any day at the beach. Most die young and violent deaths without the joys of friends nor family. But both our pals the gangster and his good friend the prostitute, brought some of the common sense and good times that we all enjoy today.
The “Gangster Golden Era” really lasted just three years from 1933 to 1936. This was also the era of the FBI’s “War on Crime”. The FBI started out as a bumbling band of overmatched amateurs who initially didn’t even carry firearms. J. Edgar’s boys lost suspects, botched stakeouts, and repeatedly arrested the wrong men. Their mistakes would be comical if not for the price paid by the innocent. During that three-year period we saw the rise and fall of John Dillinger (definitely a cool cat…the chicks dug him), Baby Face Nelson (a real unstable psycho, killed to boost his ego and did have a baby face), Machine Gun Kelly (real name George Barnes, dumb as a sack of nails, his wife nagged him into a world of crime), Pretty Boy Floyd (was not pretty, but was cool enough to have Woody Guthrie write a song about him), the Barker/Karpis gang (Ma Barker was a dim-witted old hag who loved to put together puzzles, it was J. Edgar who portrayed her as a “mastermind,” her own gang said “she couldn’t plan breakfast”), and Bonny and Clyde (no Warren or Faye here, largest haul was $3500, killed innocent bystanders, were incompetent and careless. She was 23 and Clyde was 25.)
There is one cat that needs to be further mentioned. Picture this: it is 1979 and you were on the Spanish coast in a town called Torremolinos. You look over at the table next to you and there was a seventy year old Alvin “Creepy” Karpis still lean and alert looking more like a professor then the last of the FBI’s Public Enemy No 1’s. Creepy (his friends called him Ray) was captured in 1936 and according to Creepy, Hoover approached him only after other agents had seized him. Hoover said “Put the cuffs on him.”, but no one brought any, so they had to use one of the agent’s ties. During his life time he ran with Baby Face Nelson, knew Bonny and Clyde, was the longest-serving prisoner on the Rock (Alcatraz), for a long stretch of 26 years. He knew the Birdman, and that gas-bag Machine Gun Kelly, and saw Capone flop around on the cafeteria floor like a large mouth bass on the cutting board while in one of his syphilitic seizures. In 1962, while in the process of closing Alcatraz, Creepy was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington state. There he was approached by a little punk who wanted guitar lessons. “He was meek and mild and never said a harsh word to anybody ” said Creepy. Charlie Manson went on to his own fame, but not by playing the guitar. Creepy was released in 1969 and died in Spain ten years later of an accidental overdose of pills and booze.
As far as our friend the gangster and organized crime is concerned, they brought us many things that we enjoy today: jazz music (Al Capone, whose jazz clubs in Chicago introduced jazz to mainstream America, and according to black singer Ethel Waters “treated her with respect, applause, deference, and paid in full.” He and other gangsters, including the great Owney Madden of Cotton Club fame, supplied steady and professional incomes to jazz musicians who had previously lived in poverty.), alcohol (prior to Prohibition a woman rarely drank in public unless she was a prostitute. The “Speakeasys” changed that because women were welcomed there), Las Vegas, Broadway (Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, who is credited for turning organized crime into big business, financed several Broadway venues, such as the famous Selwyn Theater, as well as various productions that brought tens of thousands of patrons to the “Great White Way”) the establishment of many of the gay and lesbian bars in America (Where there is dough you will always find the “Goodfellas”, Vito Genovese and Carlo Gambino, leaders of two of the most powerful crime families in America. They began investing in gay clubs in the 1930’s. The famous Stonewall Inn was owned by three associates of the Genovese family. The family funded the gay pride parades in New York City which have become an annual event demonstrating sexual freedom.)
And look what our lovely street walking friends brought us: in the 19th century, if a woman owned property, made high wages, used birth control, consorted with men of other races, danced, drank, walked alone in public, wore makeup, perfume, or stylish clothes, chances were she was a prostitute. In fact, prostitutes won virtually all of the freedoms that were denied to women, but are now taken for granted.
So you see, a lot of good comes from the bad. I think our pals the gangster and the prostitute deserve a toast next time you have a drink in your hand, but perhaps not in loud tones. Who knew that so much freedom and groove would be handed to us along the dark path of those who do dark deeds? Raise a glass to those who came before us and let us not take these freedoms for granted. Groove.
I stole shamelessly from two excellent books : A Renegade History of the United States by Thaddeus Russell and Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough. Thanks fellas.